Wallace isn’t responsible for his imitators, much less for the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax. The devices can be traced back to him, though, if indirectly; they were filtered through and popularized by Dave Eggers’s literary magazine and publishing empire, McSweeney’s, and Eggers’s own novels and memoirs, all of which borrowed not only Wallace’s tics but also his championing of post-ironic sincerity and his attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself. “There is no overwhelming need to read the preface,” Eggers wrote in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”; in fact, after “the first three or four chapters” the book “is kind of uneven.”

The ur-text of this movement, though, is Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” written in 1993. It’s a call for writing that transcends irony and detachment but, itself, comes drenched in both. The essay bemoans what Wallace saw as the near-impossibility of writing inventive, self-aware fiction in a television culture. He concludes by imagining some future group of “literary ‘rebels’ ” who would be “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs … [and] accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.”

In its soaring romanticism, its Orwellian fears, its I’m-just-riffing-here backtracking and its infuriating absence of question marks following interrogatories, this essay prefigures many of the worst tendencies of the Internet. As the Times critic A. O. Scott has observed, Wallace “wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.” Every assertion, consequently, comes wrapped in qualifications, if not partial refutations; a later essay, appearing in “Consider the Lobster,” is titled, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think.”